I've touched on this phenomenon before, but it's worth discussing in depth. Simply put, a number of news/information sites display ambiguous dates on their story pages without designating (either visually or explicitly) whether they're publication dates or the current date. This practice is confusing, misleading -- and easily avoidable.
I've given this a little thought and have divided sites into four groups:
- Group 1: Those that display only one date and make clear what that date means. (Good)
- Group 2: Those that display only one date but do not make clear what it means. (Bad)
- Group 3: Those that display two dates but make clear how they differ. (OK, but potentially confusing)
- Group 4: Those that display two dates but do not make clear how they differ. (Horrible)
Let's take these one at a time.
Many news sites keep it simple by displaying only a single date -- the date of story publication -- and placing it in the content area to give users a visual clue that the date is intrinsically related to the story. Good examples: arizonarepublic.com, which places the date just below a story's byline, and seattlepi.com, which places it slightly above a story's headline.
The key on these sites is the visual relationship between the date and the rest of the content. For example, there's no need to preface the date with "Date posted: " if the date appears just below the byline; in that case, it's obvious the date refers to the publication date.
A problem arises when a news site displays a single date but doesn't identify it.
The New York Times' site offers a fine example. On its story pages (sample page), a date appears in the upper-right corner -- located far enough from the content that you might stop and think, "Is that today's date, or the date this article was published?"
In the Times' case, it's the date the article was published. But I only know that because I clicked around the site and observed the dates change. Because the date is so far removed from the content area (the light purple search bar stands between them), they're not visually tied, as the Group 1 examples were. The Times would do well to label this with "Posted:" or "Publication date:", whichever is more appropriate.
Introducing a second date into the picture makes things more confusing, but some sites manage to pull it off with minimal confusion.
North Carolina's Sanford Herald displays today's date and the article's publication date, using placement to distinguish the two. (Note that there's still a chance a reader might mistake the former for the latter.)
The Hollywood Reporter gets a little sketchier, displaying the current date near the logo but prominently displaying the article's publication date below the headline to clear up confusion.
Likewise, benicianews.com displays the current date in the upper-right corner but displays the publication date just above the headline. And cjonline.com displays today's date in the upper-right corner while showing an article's last-modified date just below the headline.
The most confusing way to present dates is to display two of them with no apparent distinction. You might particularly be inclined to double-take a story such as this one on nytimes.com, which displays one date ("PHOENIX, Nov. 27") in the article body and a second ("November 28, 2002") at top right. Which one's correct? Journalists will tell you that "PHOENIX, Nov. 27" is a newspaper convention called a "dateline" -- a short snippet giving the reporter's location, if not local, and the date -- but, convention or not, having two ambiguous dates on the same page is confusing.
It's easy to make dates make sense: Identify them.
A label works well. The Belfast Telegraph uses the label "Publication Date:". Savannahmorningnews.com uses "Web posted". Greenvilleonline.com uses "Posted". On these sites, the meaning of dates is unambiguous -- which is the way it should be.
Giving the date is crucial in presenting the news; without a clear disclosure of the date, a news article is useless.